China #17: Lost Paradise of Shangri-La's Dukezong Ancient City (香格里拉独克宗古城)
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Sights: Dukezong Ancient City (独克宗古城)
Region: Shangri-La County, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan
Story #16: Three Ancient Towns of Lijiang (丽江三古镇)
And I was finally in utopia — Shangri-La!
My first stop in Shangri-La was Dukezong Ancient City. Dukezong, meaning "Moonlight City (日光城)" in Tibetan language, has a history of 1,300 years and has the largest Tibetan population. It was also an important stop along the Ancient Tea-Horse Trail (茶马古道) which connected Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou to Tibet. It was the best-preserved ancient city in China — until 2014.
This post is titled the "lost paradise" because up to 70% of the ancient city was burnt down in a huge fire in January 2014 — the photos shown here were taken in December 2012, about a year before the fire. The current city was reconstructed and reopened in 2016 but it has lost most of its rusticity and originality.
Nevertheless, the ancient city is still an important part of Shangri-La.
Getting from Lijiang to Shangri-La
Together with Xiaohan, a Zhuang-minority girl from Guangxi whom I got to know in Dali Shuanglang Town (大理双廊), we hitch-hiked from Shuhe Ancient Town to Shangri-La.
This was my first time trying this means of getting from one place to another by "begging" drivers. And it was not easy as most drivers preferred to pick up girls — which is also something dangerous for lone-travelling girls.
Xiaohan did most of the thumbing (the sign for hitch-hiking) and asking while I stood a little back from the road, only to step out after she successfully hitch-hiked a car. It was not that I was being unhelpful but most drivers would not stop for guys — which we realised after an hour of thumbing.
Frankly, I don't encourage girls to hitch-hike alone. In 2012, Shangri-La was flooded with news of a lone Chinese girl who went missing after hitch-hiking in the mountainous region, she was never seen again. Despite the danger, I met more young female Chinese travellers who were so eager to hitch-hike just to save on transport costs.
Another disadvantage of hitch-hiking was the long time spent on thumbing for a car to take us — it can take hours. By the time we reached Shangri-La, night had already fallen. The driver dropped us outside a youth hostel and we checked in without knowing exactly where we were in Shangri-La.
Fortunately, the hostel was located at the edge of Dukezong Ancient City.
Where I Stayed
I can't remember the name of the youth hostel. And I am not sure if it is still around today, especially after the great fire.
We stayed for 2 nights in the ancient city before moving to Shangri-La Lao Shay Youth Hostel in the grassland, a short distance outside the ancient city, to try staying in the grassland and experience a different lifestyle in Shangri-La.
Dukezong Ancient City in 2012
These photos are fond memories of the once best-preserved ancient city of China. Check out the ancient streets. (I have not been back to the city since 2012, so I do not know how much different it is now.)
The commercial zone would be where all tourists would go, obviously. Despite being a business zone, it was not very touristy and crowded as Lijiang and Dali — probably because it was already winter.
The well-preserved Tibetan architectures were evident throughout the ancient city and also the zigzagging paths that showed its originality. In Chinese, we call it "古色古香" or "having a rustic atmosphere". It was much more authentic here than the ancient cities of Lijiang and Dali.
One of the white Tibetan pagoda with colourful prayer flags in the ancient city.
We also explored the residential zone where more cafes and lodgings can be found. There were museums in here too, especially the Shangri-La Ancient Tea-Horse Trail Museum (香格里拉茶马古道博物馆). But most travellers and tourists tend to stay in the commercial zone unless guided by tour guides here.
I thought this was a young cow but a passerby said it was a young yak. However, there was no adult yak in sight in the city so I still say this is a cow.
And we were at the back of Guishan Park (龟山公园). This was a splendid view with Guishan Temple (龟山寺) sitting on a small hill above the ancient city.
We skirted around the hill to the main entrance of Guishan Park, which faced Yueguang Plaza (月光广场, meaning "moonlight square").
There was a Han-Tibetan architecture facing the plaza as well, called Zhongxinzhen Hall (中心镇公堂，又称藏经堂), a depository for Tibetan-Buddhist texts. The hall was also a communal place for Tibetans to gather for meetings and religious activities.
Guishan Park (龟山公园)
Guishan Park is a small park and was free entry — I believe it is still free this day. See the 5-storey high golden prayer wheel on the hill?
Guishan Park was the main highlight of Dukezong Ancient City apart from the city itself.
Up the steps to Guishan Temple with Tibetan prayer flags flying on both sides.
Guishan Temple is where Buddhists will definitely go in for prayers. By the way, no photos inside any temples, just observe.
For travellers, the highlight will be the golden prayer wheel — it is one of the world's largest and heaviest prayer wheel and once held the Guinness World Record until a bigger prayer wheel was built in Heyin Town, Gui De County, in Qinghai Province (青海.贵德县.河阴镇) in 2012.
But Guishan's prayer wheel has longer history and free to visit. The bronze wheel is gold-plated and has exquisite cravings related to Buddhism. Inside the giant Tibetan wheel are 1.24 million lines of inscription from several mantras.
By spinning the prayer wheel clockwise for one round, the 1.24 million lines of prayer will be recited once. By spinning three complete rounds, disasters will diminish and good fortune will be bestowed.
However, team effort is needed to spin it. One of the hostel staff (lady in white) gathered a group of travellers from the hostel, including us, to accomplish the task. It is impossible for one person to do it alone.
For an aerial view of the ancient city from Guishan Hill, the better time to go up the hill would be in the late afternoon to get a day-time view.
And explore the park until it gets dark and check out the night view.
Daguishan Park (大龟山公园)
With more time to spare, we visited Daguishan Park (大龟山公园), about 200m from Guishan Park. This park was actually bigger and higher than Guishan Park and had more natural surroundings.
This was the way up the hill. We were the only visitors to the park that day.
A view of Guishan Park and the city from the hill top.
There was a Baiji Temple (百鸡寺), or Hundred Chicken Temple, on the hill. Tibetans would offer live chickens from their households to the gods and the chickens were kept in this temple. They would roam around the temple freely and would not be slaughtered for food since they belonged to the gods.
And there were more to see on the hill.
Isn't this place heavenly? It's a paradise on earth!
But the legendary Shangri-La is not just an ancient city — there are more!
After a full day in Dukezong Ancient City, we moved to the wide grassland outside the city and visited Potatso National Park (普达措国家公园). Then we went on a 3D2N journey to Deqin County for Meili Snow Mountain. After three days, we were back in the grassland and did a cycling trip around Napa Lake (纳帕海).
For simplicity of blogging, I will talk about the Meili Snow Mountain journey before coming back to introduce Potatso and Napa Lake in Shangri-La's grasslands (see Story #19).
#Dukezong #ShangriLa #Diqing #Yunnan #China #AncientTown #TeaHorseTrail
Story #18: Sacred Meili Snow Mountain of Shangri-La (梅里雪山)